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‘We assessed the practicality of this solution in terms of technical feasibility and economic affordability’

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Kanupriya Goel, Researcher and Designer with specialisation in healthcare-related products and Dr Gautam Goel, Computational Biologist, inventors of a self expiring medicine packaging, divulge more details about this innovation, in an exclusive interaction with Sachin Jagdale

Give us the outline of your project.

Kanupriya Goel

Self Expiring is a packaging material for medicinal products that visually ‘self expires’ over a fixed period of time. This packaging will graphically display a ‘not fit for consumption’ message as the medicine approaches its expiration date. The message will be displayed in universally accepted danger signs in regional languages that can be readily interpreted by people from all walks of life. The solution will prevent illegal sales of expired medicines and fatalities arising from their accidental consumption.

What was the intent behind this discovery?

Dr Gautam Goel

The intent was to come up with a packaging material on which its expiration information was not dependent on language literacy, or a user’s ability to find the expiration date on the medication package/ bottle. We wanted the packaging material to be as informative as universally accepted symbols/ signs such as the danger sign or traffic lights, which impart the same message across cultures. Equally important, we wanted the solution to be tamper proof that would prevent illegal sale of expired medications.

The concept of visually changing paper exists and we applied it to propose a packaging material that consists of various layers which bleed ink in a fixed time lapse to the layer above. Depending on the time frame of expiration, these layers could be increased or decreased and programmed to display the expiration message on the topmost layer of packaging alerting the user of the expiration of the medicine.

We proposed a graphical solution as it would prove useful to the third generation (aging population with limited vision and agility), the illiterate (one’s who cannot read or write or understand the concept of expiration of medicines), people constrained by language (most of the printed labels are in English, which is not spoken or understood in many parts of the world). We believe having the expiration message appear graphically on the packaging will enable the user to understand when to stop using it, and lift off the huge burden of consumption of expired medicines and health repercussions due to the same.

What are the drawbacks associated with current method of imprinting the expiration date on medicinal packaging? What was the major challenge for you during the course of the development of this self expiring medicine packaging?

Consumption of expired medications can lead to prolonged illness, increased healthcare costs and in some cases life threatening situations. The current solution of imprinting the expiration date on medicinal packaging is ineffective for multiple reasons:

  • The choice of language for indicating the expiration date is English, which is not the first language in several parts of the world
  • The expiration date can be difficult to find and read due to the size of the font
  • The printed date often wears off with time or gets removed as the packaging is used or torn (as in case of medicinal strips).

All these issues can collectively lead to accidental consumption of expired medicines, which at times can prove fatal. Our challenge was to find a tamper-proof solution that would record and display the expiration date of the packaged medicine, starting from the point of origin when the medicine is packaged to the point till it remains fit for consumption.

What kind of background study was conducted by you for this project? What is the actual mechanism of self expiring medicine packaging?

We performed ethnographic research of focused groups in India, like the elderly population, construction workers, slum dwellers, kids between age 6-12 and realised that in many cases people were not aware of the concept of expiration of medicines. While in some cases the awareness of such a concept was limited, in several instances the inability to find or read it on the packaging posed additional challenge especially for the elderly and the illiterate. We realised that the medicinal strips sold in India have the expiration information stamped in one corner. In the event when these strips were sold on a per pill basis, the expiration information would be missing as the needed numbers of pills, say two or three out of six in a pack, would be torn from the original packaging. In some cases it was observed that the retailers would willingly sell expired medicines at cheaper prices to earn profits. We wanted a solution that could solve the problem, and create awareness at all levels.

Our solution to the problem adapts an existing technology called the visually changing paper. We used this technology to create a packaging material that will visually ‘self expire’ over a period of time. This packaging will be made of inexpensive label-like materials. It will have a two-component design where the foreground label will initially display the medicine information on a solid plain white background. The second component consists of the layer carrying the hidden message. These two layers will be separated by multiple sheets of diffusible material through which the ink from the hidden message will seep through as time lapses. The number of sheets will allow us to control the rate of diffusion of the hidden ink such that the ‘not fit for consumption’ message is revealed only at/ around the time of expiration.

As part of the standard packaging material, this ‘timed colour-image change’ will be impervious to any of the issues with the current solution of printing the expiration date. The timing sequence will be initiated from the very point of packaging itself and this will prevent retailers from illegally selling any expired medications for personal gains. Our choice of colour(s) and design of expiration pattern include universally accepted signs of danger, which will be well understood, just like how traffic light signals are understood universally in a singular fashion. The time controlled release of the expiration will not interfere with the original medicine label and information, and hence the user will not be misled into believing the medicine has expired before it actually does.

We envision that a successful and widespread implementation of this idea would have to be enforced by FDA and pharmaceutical companies. This idea, if made a norm in medicinal packaging, can save patients from prolonged illness and fatalities arising from the accidental consumption of expired medication. It will also prevent retailers and black marketers from making profit off of selling expired medications to their less aware and illiterate consumers.

How practical is this solution? According to you, how is the pharma industry going to respond to this concept?

We assessed the practicality of this solution in terms of technical feasibility and economic affordability. We believe that since we adapted an existing technology of a visually changing paper to apply it to our problem context of interest, a prototype is warranted to establish the exact kinetics of the design. Having seen some existing applications of this technology, such as ID-badges that self-expire over time and milk cartons that change colour as milk turns bad, we believe our solution is practical too. However, pharma companies might not get behind this idea because unless the additional cost to packaging, however miniscule, can be profitably passed on to the end-user. We imagine one could prioritise application of this concept to medicines ranked by severity of risk associated with post – expiration consumption. A mandate from a regulatory body, such as FDA, would be just as critical in this regard.

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